Q+A: Fighting hunger in the world's toughest places

March 19, 2015

Share this story:
  • linkedin
  • Helping vulnerable people build better lives often starts with helping them secure the food they need to be healthy and productive, now and in the future. Photo: Ben Manser/Mercy Corps

The world produces enough food for everyone to live a healthy life, yet 842 million people around the world face hunger every day. And when families don’t have access to the food their bodies require, they can quickly become trapped in a cycle of poverty and hunger that keeps them from thriving.

“The good news is that there is enough food for everyone,” says Cathy Bergman, Mercy Corps' Director of the Food, Health and Nutrition Unit, which supports our work on food security. “If we had a completely efficient global food distribution system, no one would be hungry.”

Here, Bergman tells us what’s keeping families from getting the food they need and what Mercy Corps is doing to help.

Q: What is food security?

Cathy Bergman: Food security exists when all people, at all times, have the physical, social and economic access to the food they need to live an active, healthy life.

Q: Why is it so important?

Without food security, productivity goes down substantially.

Hungry or malnourished people can’t perform to their fullest potential, which makes earning a living, going to school or improving their lives very difficult.

So, if our mission at Mercy Corps is to enable secure, productive and just communities, we need to address food security.

Q: What makes someone food secure?

There are four components to consider. The first is the existence of food in a person’s environment, and the next is whether or not they have access to it, even within their own household. Oftentimes, different members of a family — typically men and boys — are favored for food over others.

The third component is how available food is being used and prepared. Does a family have safe, sustainable methods to cook meals? Are the children’s bodies healthy enough to properly absorb nutrients from the food? If not, those families are not food secure.

And the last component of food security is resilience. Communities must be resilient to future food shortages and undernutrition in order to be food secure.

Q: What causes food crises?

The world actually produces enough food for everybody right now. It's largely a question of access, even during food crises.

For example, there was food in Niger during the 2010 hunger crisis there. It just wasn’t making it to certain agricultural communities. The families in those areas depend on agriculture for food and income, but they had several low-yield years leading up to the crisis. They had lost so many harvests that no one had food or money to buy food, therefore, traders weren't traveling to the area since they couldn’t garner a profit.

Areas where agriculture drives the economy are especially vulnerable to cyclical food crises — they have one or two growing seasons a year, thus, only one or two opportunities to secure the money and food their families need for that year.

Q: How does Mercy Corps respond in this type of emergency?

Availability is always the first thing we look at and, generally, food exists in the countries we work in. The issue, again, is access and affordability.

Usually we distribute cash or vouchers so families can purchase the urgent goods they need, this way we’re able to support all the connected services as well, like the transporters who bring the traders and their customers to the market.

Importing and distributing food from the U.S. does not offer the same economic stimulus that cash or vouchers allow on the local level.

And we don’t just distribute emergency supplies, we always think about the long term. As soon as we can, we transition into helping communities build food security for the future.

Q: What are some of the ways we build long-term food security?

Our strategies vary depending on context, but we work to prevent cyclical hunger in agricultural communities by thinking holistically about farmers’ household needs, as well as the market needs of the area. Then we help farmers find ways to meet those needs.

For example, everyone requires nutrition from fruits and vegetables, but what if there is only one season a year when they’re available?

Processing food through canning and drying can make those crops available for purchase throughout the year, providing a consistent source of income for the farmer and increased food security for their family and community.

We also help farmers learn ways to yield higher revenue for their crops, like sun-drying their tomatoes, which increases their value against raw tomatoes that perish quickly, or connecting them to urban supermarkets that might buy their crops in bulk.

Q: Once food is available, how do we make sure every person is getting what they need?

We always work to address ingrained care and feeding practices that present food barriers on an individual and community level.

A lot of our programs educate people about proper nutrition, but we have to include all the members of a household or it won’t do any good. For example, we can’t just educate a woman about the need to breastfeed her child, we must also teach the grandmother not to feed the child water instead of milk.

And in Malawi, for instance, it’s considered unhealthy for pregnant women to eat eggs. There we educate women about the nutritional benefits of eggs, but we also educate the community so they’ll be supportive of the women’s decision to eat them.

These educational techniques are also applied to hygiene practices — things like handwashing, cleaning cooking tools and keeping livestock out of the home. Proper hygiene and sanitation keeps food safe and keeps families healthy, which increases their ability to absorb the nutrients their bodies need.

Q: What is the future of food security?

It's true the population is growing and, paired with climate change, we’re going to have a challenge on our hands. We need to help farmers build resilience to climate change, which is greatly affecting crop output. Adapting agricultural practices to work in changing environments will help sustain food security over the long term.

How you can help

You are an important part of this progress. Your support helps provide emergency food and agricultural solutions to keep families from going hungry in the world's toughest places. Donate today ▸